Every month, every woman in Zambia is legally entitled to a day off work.
Referred to as “Mothers Day,” the law does not spell out the reason for the provision, but everyone knows what it is for: periods.
Despite its name, the law applies to all women regardless of whether they have children. Women can take their day at any point in the month, and do not need to provide a medical explanation to their employer. Any employer who denies a female employee this right can be prosecuted.
So is this an example for the rest of the world to follow? Is “menstrual leave” a sign of progress, or simply patriarchy 2.0?
What are your thoughts on menstrual leave?https://t.co/CXgFv6IQWq— Clue (@clue) December 7, 2016
The idea divides opinion, in Zambia, and around the world where similar policies have been tested. In several Chinese provinces, organizations like Pride Planning offer women a day or two of menstrual leave each month. Churan Zheng, a Chinese feminist who works for Pride Planning suffers from severe period pain and believes that menstrual leave should be guaranteed to all women.
“I always get a heavy feeling and stomach cramps the night before my period starts,” she told the BBC. “And when I wake up, the pain that accompanies the menstruation is so unbearable that I always imagine myself grabbing my intestines and tearing them out of my body, or cutting them out with a pair of scissors.”
To those who argue companies might suffer as a result of reduced productivity, she said: “As far as I know, my company — where female employees are in the majority — doesn't suffer significant financial loss despite the fact that almost every woman takes menstrual leave every month, or every other month.” She and her female colleagues plan ahead before they take the leave (hint: because it happens every month) and make efforts to catch up afterwards.
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Justin Mukosa, a male employer in Zambia, agrees that menstrual leave does not necessarily lead to lower productivity. "Productivity is not only about the person being in the office,” he said. “It should basically hinge on the output of that person."
His employee, Ndekela Mazimba, chooses to take a "Mothers Day" due to her intense period pains.
"You might find that on the first day of your menses, you'll have stomach cramps — really bad stomach cramps," she said. "You can take whatever painkillers but end up in bed the whole day."
Nature cannot free women from period pain, but isn't there something our society can do for women? #MenstrualLeavehttps://t.co/VJv9hMEaWX— Gudrun (@Cristal_Tempo) December 16, 2016
Still, not everyone is as convinced. Some argue that the idea of “menstrual leave” does more harm than good to the fight for gender equality.
Many fear it will reinforce patronizing patriarchal notions of feminine weakness, or add fuel to voices that treat “time of the month” as an insult. Even Zambia’s “Mothers Day” euphemism suggests periods are still taboo in the country, and ties the notion of womanhood directly to motherhood.
The concerns continue. Could “menstrual leave” tilt employment even further out of women’s favor, adding more excuses for organizations to give preference to male candidates? The Guardian asks whether, instead of menstrual leave, women should have a day off each month until the pay gap is closed? And besides, aren’t we always arguing that no girl should have to miss school because of her period?
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But if women like Zheng do experience chronic pain while menstruating, why should they have to keep calm and carry on?
10% of women do suffer from inhibitive period pains, known by the medical term: dysmenorrhoea. Yet the condition is under-researched, and rarely taken seriously as a medical condition requiring more than over-the-counter painkillers, as well as prolonged physical aches, women can suffer from nausea, diarrhoea and headaches while menstruating.
Yet they are expected to grin and bear it, just as they are expected to tolerate the nasty side effects of contraception, a level of discomfort that so far, men have proven unable to endure. Of course, women cannot choose whether to have their periods, but it’s clear that in many parts of the world, our cultures have not developed to accommodate or even understand menstruation.
As Zheng puts it: “I cannot stop thinking that if men had periods then menstrual leave might have been written into national constitutions from the very beginning.”
It may not yet be a constitutional right, but the idea of menstrual leave is gaining ground. The practice in Zambia has been in place since the 1990s, Nike introduced paid leave for staff on their periods in 1997, and in 2016, British company Coexist offered flexible working hours for women experiencing period pain. While progress is slow, these examples of “menstrual leave” policies create an important conversation on what gender equality looks like in practice all over the world.